Leinster preview: Blues need to focus on the Biggar picture
LEINSTER play their first competitive home game of the season against Ospreys at the RDS tonight against the backdrop of speculation regarding the future of two of their biggest assets – Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien.
Both players are out of contract at the end of the season and have been linked with big-spending Clermont Auvergne. Racing Metro are also understood to be sniffing around O'Brien as they seek to add further strength to their side.
These are distractions Leinster could do without as they continue to adjust to life after Jonathan Sexton and under Matt O'Connor.
Losing both – or, indeed, either – of their Lions back-row forwards is an unpalatable thought for the defending Pro12 champions.
The province showed remarkable business acumen when tying Ian Madigan to a new contract recently. It is likely that both Heaslip and O'Brien will be negotiating directly with the IRFU, which will be a new experience for O'Brien.
They are just two of a number of Ireland players whose contracts are up for renewal at the end of the season and it is likely that certain players will be linked with a plethora of overseas clubs between now and December when contracts are traditionally finalised.
There is no chance of Leinster easing themselves into their home campaign as they will be challenged in every facet of the game by Ospreys at the RDS, with out-half Dan Biggar leading the way for the 2012 Pro12 champions.
Biggar is so highly thought of by the Leinster players that Eoin Reddan figures the only explanation for him being overlooked in favour of Rhys Priestland at international level must be a falling out with Wales' coach Warren Gatland!
"He's an excellent player. You do wonder why he's not picked for Wales more often when he and Priestland are fit," said Reddan.
Biggar kicked 11 points – two drop-goals, a penalty and a conversion – in a man-of-the-match performance last weekend when Ospreys beat Treviso in their opening game of the season and both Reddan and forwards coach Jono Gibbes were generous when profiling them this week. The respect Leinster have for Ospreys is genuine and is reflected in the team and squad selection for tonight. Reddan describes the 2012 Pro12 final as "one of the toughest games I've ever played in."
Leinster are loaded for big-game hunting. The backline is as started against Scarlets last weekend and they have strengthened their pack considerably.
Mike McCarthy will make his home debut after coming off the bench last weekend. Ireland colleagues Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss also start, as does Kevin McLaughlin. It is a bruising and intimidating forward division.
Among the backs a big positive is the inclusion of Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing.
The former Lion was withdrawn early last weekend after complaining of a "tight groin," but he has fully recovered and came through Thursday's training session without incident.
His inclusion is a massive fillip for the team and especially for the player. He has had a horrific time with injuries and desperately needs an injury-free run if he is to reclaim former glories and reignite his international career.
The greatest pity about Fitzgerald's travails is that at his best, and in the fullness of his health, he is one of the most exciting rugby players in Ireland.
It's not just Leinster supporters who will be hoping the worst is past him as he will be a huge asset to Ireland in the future.
Ospreys coach Steve Tandy is keen to build on the momentum of victory in Italy the last weekend with a strong showing in the RDS tonight.
"We want to come back to the Liberty next week to play Edinburgh on the back of another positive performance, so that there will be a real buzz around to welcome the boys back for the first home game of the Pro12 season and a good crowd getting behind the region," he said.
Ospreys have also named the same backline as that which started in Italy and show just one change in the forward unit, as Ian Evans comes in at lock in place of Ryan Jones.
Leinster also boast a very impressive bench with Madigan set to make his seasonal bow at some stage during the game. Isaac Boss is also named among the replacements. Both will see action tonight.
This is the first competitive home fixture of the O'Connor era. There is little Leinster can do about the continuing speculation regarding Heaslip and O'Brien. A win tonight would be a welcome distraction.
LEINSTER – D Kearney; D Fanning, B Macken, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Murphy. Reps: S Cronin, J O'Connell, M Moore, T Denton, R Ruddock, I Boss, I Madigan, D Hudson
OSPREYS – R Fussell; B John, A Bishop, A Beck, E Walker; D Biggar, T Tebaldi; R Bevington, S Baldwin, J Rees; I Evans, J King; T Smith, S Lewis, J Bearman. Reps: R Hibbard, D Jones, A Jones, T Ardron, M Allen, T Grabham, M Morgan, J Hassler.
Leinster v Ospreys,
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